Apologia Pro Mea Loca, or Why I Live in Thailand

by Kenneth Champeon, May 4, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Every now and again, somebody asks me why I live in Thailand. Usually the questioner is well intentioned and curious, but sometimes suspicious or confused. The mixed intentions are especially evident when the questioner is a fellow American, who seems to want to know why I don't live in America. A great many Americans religiously believe that America is the greatest country in the history of the world. Thus I can only be insane or self-loathing to live somewhere else voluntarily; or ungrateful, when so many would give their eyeteeth to take my place.

What begins as an opportunity to discuss the virtues of my temporarily adopted country thus turns into a discussion of the vices of my temporarily abandoned one. I have fairly strong views on what these vices are, and they effortlessly come tumbling out upon provocation. In what follows I'll try to hold my tongue. But in many previous instances, either my inquisitor or I become defensive if not hostile, and the discussion comes to a swift and sometimes nasty end. Few emotions are stronger and at the same time more irrational than nationalism.

I have often thought that the best first reply to the question would be to ask a similar one. "Why do you live in Texas?" for example. I expect I would discover that nobody really knows why he or she lives where they do. Much of life is drifting, chance, compromise, and resignation. Square pegs fit into square holes and stay there; how they arrived is not so important, nor very obvious.

Probably my original reason for living in Thailand is that I am a seeker after new and strange things and places. Like Ishmael of Moby Dick, "I am tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous shores." Or, in Ishmael's less sanguine formulation, travel is "my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship."

While Thailand has westernized on the surface, it retains a great deal of its old, "barbarous" identity. I have almost always been skeptical of the West's claims to have essentially "solved the universe," as Henry Adams wrote; and have also been acutely aware of how the West might destroy it. One can only be ambivalent about a system that has created a cure for smallpox and a weapon that can destroy humanity at one stroke. More generally, I do not believe that what is new is necessarily better. But it is astonishing how widely (if only tacitly) this is believed. Thailand throughout its history has been skeptical and ambivalent too, without being fecklessly reactionary.

I have never been terribly outgoing or flamboyant; I am not an "alpha male," neither a mover nor a shaker. In my experience, neither are the Thais. On the whole, they are shy and self-possessed. Many of them would sooner die than obtrude themselves or create conflict. I can't say that I have many Thai friends, but I certainly don't have any Thai enemies.

When I lived in the United States after having lived in Thailand for a year, I found myself drawn to Thais whenever I saw them. I particularly remember riding on a bus in Portland, Oregon. The passengers were chattering about the most trivial things and in an irritatingly self-regarding way, as if they were on TV. At the front of the bus a vagrant was sermonizing to the bus driver about the inadequacy of the government. But there was one Thai woman, staring straight ahead, saying nothing, her face empty of expression save a kind of radiance. She was like a black hole soaking up all that inconsequential energy and noise, and I secretly wanted to thank her for it.

A book called The Right to be Lazy argues that laziness was a fundamental human right violated by the Industrial Revolution and never reasserted. Every animal on Earth can be seen to spend much of its time doing absolutely nothing: as the Bible says, "they sow not, neither do they reap," yet they are fed. I don't wish to repeat the old colonial canard about the universal laziness of the natives, but the Thais seldom see much value in overexertion. The Protestant work ethic has little place here.

I once worked in a school where the Director of Studies, an American, made the Thai students wake up in the early hours of the morning to go jogging. The Thais couldn't understand why. Scrimp on sleep and immediately force your body to do something it obviously doesn't want to do? What for? Why would anybody willingly suffer like this? After a while, the Director no longer had ready answers. Her Puritan background had always preached "no pain, no gain" but the Thais believed in "no pain" - period.

Well before I came to Thailand, I was closer to being Buddhist than anything, and now that I have lived here, I have difficulty imagining living in a Christian country again. Crucifixes terrify me, and I find barbaric the practice of standing on street corners telling people they are going to burn in Hell. Apparently Einstein has said somewhere that Buddhism is the most perfect human religion. Unlike the popular monotheisms, it does not require reconciliation with science, because its jurisdiction is mainly restricted to the human soul. It is atheistic, but not nihilistic. In The Brothers Karamazov, it was suggested that without God and an afterlife, man would have no reason to be good. This seemed reasonable, but only in the context of a society held together for centuries by fear of God and damnation. If a Buddhist fears anything, it is the natural consequences of his own bad actions. To riff on the words of FDR: a Buddhist has nothing to fear but himself.

Another consideration has to do with social organization and development. It has become common among many environmentalists and even urban planners to call "developed" countries "over-developed" instead. The idea is that there must be such a thing as a sustainable standard of living, and that the so-called developed countries have surpassed it. Partly this is a matter of economics and ecology, partly a matter of aesthetics: overdevelopment, like underdevelopment, can be atrociously ugly, and inhuman in its own way. The horrors of Bangkok to one side, the Thais seem to understand this. A few years back, I was attending in Thailand a wedding for an American friend of mine. He had shipped much of his family over from the US to attend as well. One of his relatives remarked to me in so many words that the Thais seemed to live in harmony with nature. I have since come around to the belief that no human being has ever lived in harmony with nature, or any other creature for that matter. But the woman had noted correctly that the desire to subdue nature is rather subdued in Thailand. She then went on to paint a picture of America I found disturbingly familiar: the huge, empty ranch-style houses separated by miles and accessible only by automobile; the giant superstores and the ubiquitous televisions. "It's like they're trying to entomb us," she said. The anonymous, semi-divine "they" was particularly upsetting. They who? Aren't you in control of your own fate? Isn't that what freedom is?

America was founded as a nation to be ruled by laws and not by men. This was indeed a step forward, away from monarchy. But it was not founded as a nation in which laws govern every last human action, for that is a step toward totalitarianism. In defense of his own choice to live in Thailand, an American friend remarked that Americans too often abide by rules without considering anymore whether the rules served the purposes for which they were designed. A perfectly ordered society is not a society of men, but of machines. A place where everything is predictable or preordained extinguishes the delight of surprise and spontaneity, and also the invigoration of accidents and risk. Like Thoreau, "I love a broad margin to my life."

Every day in this country, monks fan out into their communities in the early morning hours to receive alms of rice. The act is a daily reminder that poverty is not inconsistent with dignity, and even that wealth is. Wise men from Lao-Tzu to Lycurgus have said as much. In Thailand I seldom feel that my low income is a sign of failure, because success here is measured less by personal wealth than personal contentment. By way of small talk, an American may ask, "What do you do for a living?" A Thai asks, "Have you eaten yet?"

The November 10th, 2001 edition of the Economist suggested that the "most basic indicator of well-being" is "staying alive," i.e. life expectancy. This is not basic; it is bankrupt. It makes sense only within a society more fearful of death (a believer in Hell, perhaps?) than of misery or sorrow. Curiously, a later Economist (December 22nd, 2001) asks why Filipinos in "every survey ever conducted...consider themselves by far the happiest" of any Western or Asian peoples. In such surveys of Asia, "the Japanese and Hong Kong Chinese are the most miserable." They are also among the wealthiest.

I could not determine the Thais' professed level of happiness. But anecdotally it seems fairly high, what with the famous Thai smile and the contagious cheerfulness of Thai pop music. A recent visitor to the country told me, "The Land of Smiles isn't just a tourist gimmick: it's really true." As he also pointed out, smiles beget smiles. Moreover, smiles beget happiness: a few years ago, scientists purported to show that the physical act of smiling actually causes the brain to have a higher level of chemicals normally associated with feelings of joy.

I relish watching Thais interviewed on television. The occasion is supposed to be somber, or at least serious. But the interviewees can't seem to stop themselves from smiling, if not with their mouths then with their eyes, as if they were mentally recalling a funny joke or a love letter. One can only look on with a kind of awe, and curse one's own stony facial musculature. How can this laborious life seem so much like play to them?

The Indian philosopher Vivekananda believed that the East and the West have something equally important to teach other. For him these two things were spirituality and technology. The two words are hard to define, so I'll make my own definitions using the terms of what is known as the "Serenity Prayer." Spirituality enables us to accept the things we cannot change; technology enables us to change the things we can. Technology is an accelerator, spirituality a brake. Wisdom, so the prayer continues, enables us to know the difference. Now, a Westerner might argue that we can change everything, but this is folly: I can't change Newton's Laws. But that we can change nothing is also folly: as Dr. Samuel Johnson once gruffly put it, "We know our will is free, and there's an end on't."

Of the few countries I know directly, Thailand seems to have this wisdom "to know the difference", to seek the Middle Way between a joyless life governed by technology and a helpless life governed by the spirit. For all the country's undeniable faults, it seems to me a model of what Vivekananda had in mind.

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